Album Review – Caitlin Rose “Own Side Now”

Own Side Now is the freshman offering from Nashville songstress Caitlin Rose. It is a breath of fresh air in the non-mainstream music scene that seems at times to be polarized between hipster and hardcore.

Own Side Now strives for originality, not acceptance; yearning for it’s own niche while not being pretentious. The songs are masterfully-produced and patient. The main influence is country, but there’s some late 60’s hard pop to almost heroine sheik influence here as well, some neo-traditional and vintage approach, and some new stuff too. No song here is fleshed out in a straightforward manner. The mood and instrumentation that the heart of the song calls for is found and custom fitted to each track. If the song needs steel guitar, the steel guitar is there. But so is tympani and a string arrangements if necessary.

There is some sexuality in this music. But it is so crafty and subtle, you might completely miss it the first time through. Unlike other young female singer/songwriter contemporaries, Caitlin bears her sexuality with such slyness and taste, it simply works to spark the imagination instead of spelling it out, which allows the theme of the song to gestate in the listener in conformance with their own life experiences, making the themes more real and relate-able to the listener.

Like with the opening track, “Learning to Ride”, Caitlin takes a very simply-produced song about learning to ride horses . . .or about something else. . . maybe. . . if that’s what you want the song to be about, and makes it be many things to many people. She shows wit, and deep study in her use of language that is very old and masterfully veiled.

Little boy lost, he’s a real coin toss. And could I pay the cost of even heading for a fall?

Born in June, he could learn to run too soon. He’s a real Summer’s child with two heads about it all.

This album has spice, and the strength of diversity. “For The Rabbits” mixes in a vintage 60’s swing vibe. “Shanghai Cigarettes” is very fun, very Emmylou and Gram, with Gram on his buzzing Brady Bunch guitar, and Emmylou shaking her tambourine and going for it all with her voice at the end. In “New York” the sly sexuality and wit makes an appearance once again.

“Spare Me” was when I began to spy a general theme bridging all of these songs together; a thread that follows a young woman from being enamored at realizing boys are paying attention to her from an innocent perspective, to then making the classic and inevitable follies of thinking first loves are forever, to post-heartbreak trying to find ones self and personal discovery and travel, to now jaded selfishness and the cold realism of a scarred heart.

The title track “Own Side Now” will likely get the most attention on this album, but it is a crime to overlook “Things Change” at the 7th slot. Haunting, biting, deep, soul wrenching stuff is evoked with kettle drums, lilting electric guitar, and a tremendous amount of open space that fills in the chorus with a crescendo of heartbreak. There’s almost Radiohead relevancy here, and Caitlin’s voice really starts to awaken and show some confidence.

Then the gears are shifted one again with the very country-feeling “That’s Alright”, where Caitlin’s voice continues to come alive, leading into the song where her howitzer pipes bust out in blinding glory, “Sinful Wishing Well”. This is the masterpiece song of the album, where all of Caitlin’s assets come into collaboration: the voice, the writing, the deep heartache communicated with honesty.

Caitlin Rose didn’t write these songs for anyone but herself. You can tell this in their honesty, and that is why they work so well on the rest of us. She rips open her chest and bears all from a shattered soul: arrogant and self-righteous, and fragile with low self-esteem all at the same time.

The only track that really didn’t speak to me was the last one, “Comin’ Up”. It seems to be confused if it wanted to be angry or fun, introspective or arrogant.

Caitlin Rose might be the most intriguing woman in music right now for me, and though timid to show it at times, might have on of the most powerful voices in popular music. I’m talking Opera-type power. It is not the most unique voice, nor does it conform to the over-singing/overly-inflected voice trends of today, but it is a force of nature. It is not the interesting fish or the delicate bird, it is the galloping white stallion that hits you like a howitzer when it is unleashed. Unfortunately I don’t think this album does a fair job at translating or capturing that. “Sinful Wishing Well” and a few other spots in certain songs are an exception, but as many songwriters mature, they figure out how to compose to their lyrical strengths; a trend I hope to see develop in Caitlin.

And this is something I very rarely rate or comment about on an album, but Own Side Now shows a tremendous amount of potential in young Caitlin. Her potential is through the roof. All the raw tools are there: the voice, the songwriting, the troubled soul, the well-cultured ear for arrangement and mood, subtlety and taste. And at times the whole package is put together, but not always. Yet. In some ways she seems to be her own worst enemy. But is this a criticism, or a trait found in many of the great ones?

I see Own Side Now as one of the marquee releases for 2011 so far, because it possesses mainstream appeal without compromising originality or independent values. And overall the music is just very appealing to listen to.

Two Guns Up!

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